The Garden of Palazzo Nani Bernardo

It’s a palace garden tucked away behind a brick stone wall. Given away by tell-tale scents and yellow rose blossoms I was to discover in the garden. If there ever was any competition called for any plants in Venice, I suppose this garden must have won, and would still win:-) It’s here you can have a closer look at the ancient garden heritage of the Republic of Venice. With telltale traces: The tallest palm tree, the oldest wisteria in town … and who knows, the biggest peony blossom.

It’s a garden laid out in the style you would have seen in the last century of existence of the Republic of Venice. The palace, though, had been built before, in the 15th century. The garden very much reflects the formal baroque / renaissance style en vogue before the advent of landscape gardening in the 19th century. It’s not a garden overlooking the Grand Canal,even though it is located next to Ca’Rezzonico, but stretches farther inland with a view of the campanile of San Barnabà.

We were greeted by chirping birds on this sunny afternoon. It was one of the first warm spring Sundays in Venice, a clear and deep blue sky. A mix of flower fragrance greeted us, roses and wisteria. First of all, I noticed the roof of wisteria, just coming into bloom on the pergola covering all of the paved corte – courtyard from which you enter the garden. But then it’s not so easy stepping into the garden – just look its special guardian in the picture below …

I read that this is the oldest wisteria plant in Venice … more than 100 years old. It’s still a splendid plant, even though its trunk looks corrugated, with lots of lush leaves and dripping purple blossoms..

When I look at a garden, Venetian and non-Venetian, I do it in the following way my father, an architect, taught me: Check out its pianta  (layout of the grounds). Look for symmetry, which in our case is quite clear – there is a central axis, that is, path leading from the house to a collina – a little artificial grass-covered hill opposite, at the other end of the garden. Then divide the garden into rooms that make sense. Go about exploring these rooms one by one. Then walk round and take in the garden from all four angles. Walk to the center and look round. Return to the entrance and look back – see whether your impression has changed. And believe me – it always does. This is how the essence of a garden will unwrap

The garden is separated from the lower-lying courtyard by a low stone wall, acting as a nursery with lots of pots of chlorophytum plants, and as a shield protecting privacy under the thick roof of wisteria.

It seems that every garden in Venice is home to and attracts cats, and so does this. The resident black cat followed the visitors, exploring paths, views and perspectives between the boxwood-lined flower beds.

As you would have found in the ancient Venetian botanical garden, a corner was dedicated to citrus plants – terracotta pots of little lemon trees (which you can harvest in Venice in the spring) amongst the marble statues. In the other corner of the garden, a garden table and chairs stood out in the shade.

There is one obstacle if you intend walking down the central axis of the garden, though: The highest palm tree in Venice is coming into sight 🙂

In Venice, not all palm trees take well, even though private gardens used to grow many due to the botanical vocation of noble families. These merchants of Venice filled the gardens of their homes in town with botanical troves from exotic places. It was a keen interest on the one hand, but also a must: The Republic of Venice commissioned its merchants to bring back anything to further the beauty of their home town. Could be a precious piece of art. A relief. Or a botanical rarity. Many of these went to the Botanical Garden of the Republic, founded in 1545 in Padua. Other plants never left their “owners” and usually took well in the humid and warm climate of the lagoon.

So how many years must it have taken for the palm to become as big as that, starting out as one of the tiny seedlings you find almost everywhere on the lawns or flower beds in Venice. They look like thick glossy grass, but after a 3-4 years, they will be about 1 meter high. I can’t tell the height of this palm tree, but it’s very impressive, and its leaves looked very fresh. Around it, you can see the young canna indica shots.

On we go to the other end of the garden, past symmetrically cut flower beds. I would have continued straight to the other end, but was distracted by an unexpected color patch in pink:It must be the lushest peony blossom in Venice. We literally formed a queue to take a picture of this beauty blossoming amidst lush green leaves, next to lotus plants growing wild at one edge of the garden.


Now we have arrived at the other end of the garden, at La Collina, a seemingly unkempt part of the garden where animals retreat. Many formal gardens in Venice today have done away with this little copse which used to be an integral part of Venetian gardens. Some don’t have it because the garden borders on a canal at its far end. Others don’t have it because they are simply too small.

But fact is that Venetian noble families were masters in self-sufficient gardening. When you live in the midst of a lagoon, space is limited – as much in former times as it is today. In former times, the rural swampy parts of town were numerous: Large parts of Cannaregio were dedicated to gardening and growing herbs and vegetables.

Under the collina, a natural fridge was created, called la ghiacciaia – a cool place where deperible food was stored in former times. I was delighted to see a collina for a first time myself. A long time ago, I had had a brief look at another, still located in the Giardino Rizzo Patarol.

To be continued – Part 4: Modern Palace Gardens in Venice.

A big thank you goes to the organizers of the #FourGardensOneCommunity Meet, Anna Toniolo (IG Veneto) and Giuseppe Boscaro (IG Venice).

Giuseppe Boscaro

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